THE BARRE FIG-TREE.
BY DAVID JAMES BURRELL
" And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: and seeing a fig-tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon : and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves ; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, o man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.' 1 Mark 11:12, 13, 14. It was Monday of Passion Week. There were four days only, and so much to be done. Our Lord was entertained during these last days at the home of Lazarus in Bethany, an easy walk from Jerusalem. Each morning he betook himself to the city and preached to the multitudes who thronged to hear him, and late at night, weary, he retraced his steps to Bethany. On this particular morning, as he drew near to the city with some of his disciples, it is said that he was a-hungered. Had Martha, the busy housewife, neglected to prepare his morning meal ? Or had he, in deference to the Jewish law, refused to break his fast before the early sacrifice ? Or had he spent the previous night on the mountain-side in prayer ? In any case, he was a-hungered. Here was a fig-tree by the roadside in full foliage. He approached, lifted the leaves, and, lo ! there was nothing there. Then he said, " o man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever." The next day, as certain pilgrims came that way they saw the fig-tree withered, and said, " There is a worm at its root;" or perhaps, " The sun scorched it" But as his disciples passed by they called to remembrance the Mas-
266 THE RELIGIO OF THE FUTURE.
tert words, and Peter said, " Behold, the fig-tree which thou cursedst is withered away !" Why did Jesus curse the fig-tree ? ot for its uncomeliness; for, while its neighbors stood all bare and unsightly, it was adorned with foliage. or yet for its barrenness; there was no reason why it should be bearing fruit at that season, " for the time of figs was not yet." But the tree was cursed for being false. It vaunted itself above all its fellows as a fruitful tree, for the fig-tree is wont to put forth its fruit before its leaves. " Behold," it seemed to say, " my forwardness ! The other trees have naught but swelling buds, yet here am I in full leaf. Thou art hungry, come and see what fruit I bear." But for all this profession there was nothing to show. " But," say the critics, " it was not Christ like to curse a living thing. He came not to destroy but to save. His miracles were full of mercy— the opening of blind eyes, the wiping away of lepers' scales, the healing of sore hearts." A great truth, however, was to be taught, and it was Christlike thus to teach it The fig-tree was his, for he made it ; standing by the roadside, no man owned it ; it was an insensate thing and suffered not Shall a farmer have right to cut down an olive-tree for the crooked share of his plough, or shall a boatman fell an oak for his canoe, and may not the Son of God have right to go among his own trees and choose one for a mighty use? The cursing of this barren tree was an acted parable. It taught this lesson : the penalty of an empty prof ession is eternal emptiness ; the outcome of fruitlessness in this probationary life is barrenness for ever. I. This lesson was primarily addressed to the Jews. They were a " chosen people." Chosen to what ? ot
THE BARRE FIG-TREE. 267 to a peculiar right in the kingdom so much as to peculiar tasks and responsibilities. At the time when the nations were wandering away from truth and righteousness it pleased God to call Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees, that he and his children should become the depositaries of the true religion and of the hope of the coming Messiah, and should pass on that blessed heritage to the coming ages. To this end they were entrusted with the oracles in which was recorded " the hope of Israel ;" that is, the coming of Messiah, who should deliver the world from sin. To the same end they had the Temple, with its elaborate ceremonial, in which every knop and almond blossom, the laver, the brazen altar, the table of show-bread, the golden candlestick, the fine twined curtain, the ark of the covenant, with blood, blood sprinkled everywhere, all told of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world ; the Lamb whose offering on Calvary was to bring about the glorious restitution of all things. And to the same end they were secluded in the promised land : a little strip of country, hemmed in like a closet by sea and desert and mountains, where they were to dwell as a separated people, holding in trust their great responsibility and awaiting the coming of the promised One. What was the outcome ? They became the proudest people on earth ; insomuch that they had no dealings with the nations around them. They held their Scriptures as a fetich ; the word of God was overlaid with the traditions of the elders. The Temple came to be the centre of an empty ritualism of which 'the Lord grew weary. " To what purpose," said he, " is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me ? I am full of the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts. Bring no more vain oblations. Your incense is an abomination unto me. The
268 THE RELIGIO OF THE FUTURE.
new moons and Sabbaths and calling of assemblies I cannot away with. I am weary to bear them." They were scrupulous in the observance of all outward forms. They paid tithes of mint, anise and cummin ; they broadened their phylacteries ; they made long prayers at the corners of the streets to be seen of men ; the life had wholly gone out of their devotion. " Ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter," said the Lord, "but within they are full of extortion and excess." And again, 11 Ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which are fair without, but within full of dead men's bones, and all uncleanness." The nation was false to its great responsibility. While keeping up this show of righteousness it had wandered far from God. " The hope of Israel " had so far lost its hold upon them that when Messiah came, whom they should have received with acclamations of welcome, he had for them no form or comeliness, and there was no beauty in him that they should desire him. And, whereas they had been chosen to receive the Christ and glorify him before all the people, they led him out beyond their walls and put him to an ignominious death. For this recreancy to duty, for this abundance of foliage without fruit, the curse of barrenness passed upon them. A people of great intellect, of splendid culture, of vast wealth, of glorious history, of an unparalleled lineage, they are the one great people who are without apparent influence on the world's destiny or the great movements of succeeding ages. In the old wall of Jerusalem there is a rood of cyclopean blocks where the Jews are wont to assemble and sorrowfully read over the records of their past glory. It is their " wailing-place." They sit rocking to and fro, sobbing their prayers into the very crevices of the walL
THE BARRE FIG-TREE. 269
The barren tree is withered, stripped of its leaves and fruit alike: the chosen people, false to their duty and their destiny, are doomed to perpetual fruitlessness. II. But the lesson comes nearer home ; it is for the followers of Christ. We also are a chosen people. It is written : " He gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works." The "good works" here referred to have reference to the propagation of the gospel of Christ. The work which Israel failed to do is laid upon us, namely, to transmit the true religion to coming generations and to spread abroad the gospel of the Messiah until all the nations shall bow before him. We profess great things. The tree puts forth a luxuriant foliage, in which the world as well as our Master has reason to expect much fruit. We profess repentance; that is, hatred and abandonment of sin. We profess regeneration; that is, a new life in Christ Jesus — new hopes, new purposes and aspirations. We profess sanctification; that is, a building up of character under the influence of the Holy Spirit in the imitation of Christ. We profess to be the servants of our Lord, anxious to follow in his footsteps in the winning of souls and the hastening of the Kingdom of Truth and Righteousness. We profess an entire consecration — time, talents, possessions all laid before our Master's feet We profess to believe that our life here is but a handbreadth and that we journey towards a better country, even a heavenly, so that our conversation should not be here but in heaven, and our lives be hid with Christ in God. The tree that bears such leafage should surely be abundantly fruitful. What manner of persons ought we to be ! The fruit which should naturally be expected of us
270 THE RELIGIO OF THE FUTURE. under these circumstances is of two kinds, (i) Character. We are called to be saints and holy people. You remember how St. Anthony is represented — sitting in his cave with downcast face, clad in hair- cloth, and bearing the marks of long fasting, a crucifix over him, a skull beside him. But this is not the saint of modern time. He is rather a man among men; truthful, upright, one who meets his honest obligations, vows and pays to his own hurt, good-tempered at home, reverent everywhere, charitable and kindly towards all. You recall also how St. Cecilia is represented — with harp in hand, halo about her brow, and eyes uplifted towards an angel choir. But this is not the saint of modern time. ay, rather, an elect lady who layeth her hands to the spindle and maketh strength and honor her clothing; who reacheth forth her hands to the needy and feareth the Lord ; true and gentle in her appointed place. It is such saintliness that should be expected of those who follow the Christ The other form of fruit is (2) Duty ; by which we mean loyalty to the supreme obligation of the Christian life, which is to do one's utmost for the deliverance of this world from the shame and bondage of sin. Here is a world lying in darkness. Here is the cross uplifted in its midst, and here is the voice saying, " Go ye, evangelize." Our Lord came into the world to save it by his selfdenial, and he said, " As the Father hath sent me, so have I sent you." We are to make our power felt in the betterment of our community, in the sweetening of social life, in the winning of souls. " Ye are the salt of the earth ; but if the salt hath lost its savor, wherewith shall it besalted ? it is thenceforth good for nothing." " Ye are the light of the world ; let your light so shine that men may see your good works and glorify God."
THE BARRE FIG-TREE. 2?I
III. The lesson has a still further application : to nonChristians. " We make no profession," they say. Oh, yes, they do! They profess great things. They put forth an abundance of leaves, i. They profess a complete self-sufficiency. They feel no need of prayer ; they rise in the morning and enter upon the dangers of travelling through an unknown country without calling for help and guidance from above, and in this they avow themselves to be able to get along without God. 2. They profess to have no need of the atoning work of Christ. They stand on their own merits. If they are conscious of sin they propose to bear it We who have thrown ourselves upon the mercy of the Saviour know that we cannot in our own righteousness stand at the judgment bar, but they have no such scruples. The mis-lived past has no terrors for them. 3. They profess to have no need of the church. The church is a co-operative association in which Christ has placed us because we need mutual prayer and helpfulness. But they need no prayer, they need no sympathy ; they are strong enough to stand by themselves. It is clear that those who make such imposing professions should be righteous above others. They certainly should (1) bear the fruit of spotless character. Jean Jacques Rousseau, when he was dying, said, " O thou unknown Spirit, I return the soul which I received from thee as pure as when thou gavest it." The man who could speak with such assurance was surely blind to his own failings. Yet one who professes no need of prayer, no need of the atonement and intercession of Christ and no need of the fellowship of the church ought to be able to say as much as he ; and (2) he should bear the fruit of duty as well. An abstinence from all relation with the church
272 THE RELIGIO OF THE FUTURE.
does not absolve from duty. A man has his own appointed place to fill, his own great responsibilities to meet, his own tasks to perform in an earnest world. To live in the tread-mill of mere brod-und-butterschaft, to seek a livelihood or a competence, to win success in selfish ambitions, to attain wealth or honor, this is surely not to meet one's obligations. At this point success, if it go no farther, is failure ; for it means recreancy to one's high destiny and to the grave duties which are involved in it It is said that when the great temple of Minerva was erected in Athens all sculptors were invited to compete in the carving of a great statue for its dome. On the day of the award a famous artist brought his work : a life-size statue of Minerva, so beautiful that it was received with acclamations of delight. But as it was raised to its place it grew smaller and smaller, undl it seemed but a speck against the sky. The work of a poor mechanic was then unveiled, huge and uncouth ; but as it was raised aloft its deformities vanished and it seemed more and more comely, until, reaching the dome, it seemed animate with life. Alas ! for the man whose work here is only life-size ; who measures his duty by the requirements of time and sense. How it will dwindle as it approaches eternity ! But work for the Master, wrought in simple love of right doing and for the universal weal, will grow more and more beautiful as earth fades and eternity draws near. Oh, let us live as if we believed in the glory of the endless* life ! And what is the outcome? Here is the universal law : to be unfruitful here is to be barren forever. You may see outside the gates of Bombay the holy Yogi, who, in obedience to his solemn vow, has held his right arm aloft so long that it has become a nerveless, shrivelled
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thing ; its sinews are as hard as cord, its nails are like a crow's talons; it is indeed no better than dead. Yet that right arm was capable of great things. It might have ploughed the field, it might have reached out in charity, it might have lifted the burden of the weary, but it has lost its chance. So it is ever true that unused powers are cursed with uselessness. The Kfe of mere profession is cursed with barrenness : " o man eat fruit of thee for ever." But, conversely, the reward of fruitfulness is promotion to higher tasks. We think that heaven is a place of rest, but the rest of heaven is that which comes from loyalty to duty : " Thou hast been faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities." To fight the good fight here is to wear the service- chevron there. Paul had suffered many things in Jerusalem as elsewhere. He had been scourged and imprisoned and stoned. He bore about in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus, and when he was old his reward came. How ? In a season of rest ? ay. But in glorious promotion. There was a city where to preach the gospel meant to face the mouths of lions or the flaming sword. " Thou hast borne witness of me in Jerusalem," said the Master, " thou shalt bear witness of me also in Rome." Ah, this is heaven : to go from noble service to noble service, from fruitfulness to the bearing of more fruit ! The man who is faithful here shall be yonder like a tree planted by the rivers of water ; he shall bring forth his fruit in his season ; his leaf also shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper — shall prosper forever !
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